WASHINGTON — The tension was palpable Tuesday as U.S. negotiators worked through the fifth day of talks with Vietnam on a quota-setting bilateral textile and apparel agreement.

Negotiators had not reached an agreement at press time. U.S. and Vietnamese officials were scheduled to meet in a plenary session at 7 p.m. Tuesday night.

"They are still talking and scheduled to meet later tonight but have no plans to make any statement one way or the other." said a Commerce spokeswoman.

The potential quotas appear to have caused a rift between U.S. negotiators and domestic textile and import trade and lobby groups. Both sides stepped up the pressure on U.S. negotiators late Monday and one group leveled criticism at officials over the U.S. strategy.

U.S. officials have threatened to unilaterally set limits on apparel and textile imports from Vietnam if this second round of talks fails to produce an agreement. The U.S. can set limits because Vietnam is not a World Trade Organization member.

Quota limits on Vietnam are a must-have for the beleaguered textile industry, which claims its business in the Caribbean and Mexico is being hurt as Vietnam takes up more import market share. U.S. apparel and retail import officials counter with concerns their sector will be hurt by overly restrictive and hastily applied quotas.

The U.S. Association of Importers of Apparel & Textiles issued a press release on Monday night, claiming "acrimony" had developed between retailers and U.S. textile negotiators during the talks. The group claimed that U.S. negotiators are refusing to make offers comparable to the concessions Vietnam has made.

"We assured Vietnam that if they moved forward with negotiations, the United States would be generous and that any quota levels would be based upon Vietnam’s potential," said Laura Jones, executive director of the USA-ITA. Calling the U.S. strategy "unfair," Jones added, "There is no generosity, only threats and inflexibility, including an unwillingness to meet over the weekend."

Retailers and importers are pressing U.S. officials to establish quota levels based upon Vietnam’s potential rather than its "limited past performance."

On the opposite side of the divide, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, also attempted to step up the pressure on trade officials. The association sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick Tuesday stating its concerns about what U.S. negotiators are willing to give Vietnam in terms of potential quota levels on sensitive categories, according to Cass Johnson, associate vice president of international trade at the ATMI.Johnson would not elaborate further on the contents of the letter. He blamed the Vietnamese for appearing to refuse to negotiate on the most sensitive categories.

"Vietnam has played the delay game since September in order to boost its quotas and it appears they are continuing to do so," he added.

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